By Priyanka Khanna, IANS
New Delhi, Jan 23 (IANS) As Indian film associations grumble about dubbed Hollywood films capturing the entertainment market, exotic foreign beauties have slinked by and seem to be here to stay in a fast globalising Bollywood.
Just three weeks into a new year, the faces of a 20-year-old model from a tiny South African town and a picture perfect beauty from Britain have been adorning billboards and marquees across the country.
On the heels of a small-budget romantic thriller - "Rog" - with South African Ilene Hamann in a crucial role, comes "Kisna", a magnum opus with British actress Antonia Bernath cast as the female lead by Subhash Ghai, one of the Hindi film industry's most successful filmmakers.
Ghai, known as the original showman, has set to rest all doubts about how far India's huge, colourful movie industry is willing to open its doors for foreign actors with his casting coup.
The much-awaited film with Vivek Oberoi in the title role released this week and the surprise package was Antonia whose performance was rated as superlative by the usually hard-to-please film critics.
By all accounts, "Kisna" is a really big film, with some arguing it has better period detail than "Lagaan" or "Asoka". While most were expecting Antonia to play an ornamental role, the footage given to her is a departure for Bollywood.
"Kisna" aims to appeal to audiences abroad but she could well be the next big star for Bollywood, given her dazzling screen presence. Antonia, 23, got the role after auditioning against 300 competitors in London.
At places, she overshadows Vivek and faces no challenge from Ghai's new find Isha Sharvani, who fails to deliver in the acting department.
White actors playing lead roles in Indian films was unimaginable until a few years ago, as foreigners were relegated mostly to playing evil colonials or curious character parts, say trade watchers.
Tom Alter, the son of American missionaries in India, was Bollywood's most popular "foreign face" for three decades.
Now Western hopefuls are lining up to audition for Bollywood roles. Thousands applied for "Bollywood Star", a contest organised by Britain's Channel 4 that had a Bollywood part in a Mahesh Bhatt film as the prize, the channel's website said.
Other talent hunts in foreign lands have drawn even more aspirants.
There was even an influx of "firang" beauties in Bollywood in the past year. There was Baywatch beauty Brande Rodericks in "Out of Control", and gorgeous British brunette Sophie Dahl was seen gyrating to Hindi songs in the aptly titled "The King of Bollywood".
In that film, Sophie played a documentary filmmaker who comes to Mumbai to make a movie on an ageing star.
As expected for a small-budget film, "The King of Bollywood" could not rule the box-office. But Sophie caught many eyes with her ethereal looks in the costumes of a village belle.
Also among the foreign faces seen in Bollywood in 2004 was Serbian model Jelena Jakovljevic, who appeared in a sizzling dance number in the Pritish Nandy Communications' film "Popcorn Khao Mast Ho Jayo".
Among the men, New Zealander Martin Henderson was seen playing the suitor to Bollywood stunner Aishwarya Rai in "Bride and Prejudice".
The list of Britons in Bollywood continues. British actor Toby Stephens is playing an army officer in Ketan Mehta's epic "The Rising".
In his first English-Hindi bilingual "The Rising", Aamir Khan, who was the love interest of British actress Rachel Shelley in his Oscar-nominated "Lagaan", once again pairs with a British actress.
Waiting in the wings is Annabelle Wallace, who makes her Bollywood debut alongside newcomer Karan Sharma and Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan in "Dil Jo Bhi Kahey".
The film also stars Malcolm Stoddard and Claire Oberman -- two successful figures from BBC serials.
Bollywood's foreign favours have extended to Yana Gupta and Negar Khan, both foreigners, who have carved a niche in the genre of item numbers.
Negar Khan, who found notoriety recently with news about her nude pictures in a Scandinavian magazine, got the attention of an enterprising producer who cast her in the lead for the thriller "Hello...Kaun Hai".
Khan's leading man in the film is her real-life friend Adam Bedi, Kabir Bedi's son. He made a modest debut in Higmanshu Dhulia's "Charas" and has bagged himself a role in Sanjay Jha's "Strings".
Katrina Kaif too is waiting for the right opportunity to make it big on the silver screen after her disastrous debut.
Tata Young was here too, grooving to "Dhoom machale". And Emma Bunton of the Spice Girls fame took part in the shooting of Hriday Shetty's Rishi Kapoor-Dimple Kapadia-Sammir Dattani romance.
The word going out seems to be that everyone is welcome in Indian cinema and talents like Antonia are more than welcome.